Writing the story of Britton would be no “Picnic”

Topeka Capital Journal
July 30, 2001

Recently I enjoyed visiting the past through the musicals “Music Man” and “Oklahoma,” and the drama, “Picnic.” I’ve seen all three so many times, on the Great White Way, the semi-Great White Way, in local theaters and in high school auditoriums, on the big screen and the small screen, that I long ago lost count.

“Music Man,” my favorite, is about a con man who comes to River City, Iowa, and sells the town on starting a boys band, even though he doesn’t know a musical note from a radiator whistle. The mayor smells a rat and says he “better hear some by-God tootin’ out of them horns, “ and he finally does. The hero wins the heart of Marion, the librarian.

“Picnic” is the story of a young man who returns to his hometown in Kansas broke and looking for work, but really hoping to get by on his looks and charm. It also is the story of an aging school teacher looking for a man.

After 27 unexpected turns of events that teacher lucks into a nice, cigar chewing guy, and the young man leaves by hopping a freight – but with the town beauty queen on a bus right behind him. They’re headed for Tulsa, where he can get work as a bellhop at the Mayo Hotel.

I saw the above two shows on television last week, not because I wanted to, but because I’m addicted, and if I stumble into them on the tube I stick around to the end.

We saw “ Oklahoma and “ at Topeka Civic Theatre at the Friday night before with distinguished attorney John Hamilton and his wife, Louise I use the upscale title because they had the tickets, instead that when this show came up they asked each other, “Do we know any Okies?“

Then, they said, it hit them like the breeze off of Panhandle feed lot that they knew an Okie of the “Sooner born, Sooner bred, and when I die I’ll be Sooner dead“ variety, which is the worst kind. That’s how it happened we were there, and saw and heard once again how Curly the ranch hand survived a serious situation to win the prettiest filly in all creation.

After this triple dose of small town life from some of the best creative people in the history of stage and screen, I wondered what the result would be if one of them, or all of them, did a show about my hometown of Britton, Okla.

I asked myself whatever happened in Britton that could make the juices flow from the likes of Meredith Willson, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and William Inge? I thought of one thing, but it would take a ton of imagination and talent to take it all the way to Broadway.

It would be the story of the time Britton built a new City Hall. The old one had simply caved in to time and termites, and we had to have a new one. Some wanted to build it on the side of the old one, west of the Santa Fe tracks, while others wanted it on the east side of town, near a patch of weeds the town fathers designated as a park.

The town Marshal opposed the move, saying it would put his office too far from the city jail, located right beside the old building. You couldn’t move the jail, because it was built into the town water tower, simply by walling in the four pillars holding up the water tank, and putting it in roof over it.

There was no way prisoners could escape, especially if the waterworks collapsed, in which case they drowned. The Marshal shrugged that off, saying “It ain’t happened yet.“

The chief of the Volunteer Fire Department, who ran the salvage yard, said moving City Hall would put the ‘fawr’ truck too far from his volunteers. “By the time we got to a fawr,” he said, “we could just walk in and stomp it out.“ Britton’s fire eaters often were accused of being that slow, no matter where the truck was.

The decision finally was made to rebuild City Hall in the same spot, and use the same lumber, as far as was possible. So it was dismantled, carefully, board by board, and that took all summer. Then the new construction started, and with it the first arguments, which usually took place in my dad’s drugstore.

“I heard,“ one man would say,“ they’re going to have eight-foot ceilings.”

“What’s wrong with eight-foot ceilings?“ another would ask.

“Ain’t high enough, that’s what’s wrong. You can’t get no ventilation with eight foot ceilings “

“Is that so? You orta tell the folks up in Guthrie that because their new City Hall has got eight-foot ceilings.”

“I can’t help it if you’re as dumb as the folks in Guthrie.”

So they built it and the people came, and it’s still there, although Britton has no need for it, or the water tower jail now, being part of Oklahoma City. Maybe it should be remembered as the place where eight-foot ceilings in public buildings made a last stand.

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